Jeff King is one of Carolina's 11 restricted free agents. (Photo by John Clark)
CHARLOTTE – The Carolina Panthers have plenty of decisions to make before March 5, the start of the free agency signing period.
The Panthers have no fewer than eight players eligible to become unrestricted free agents (players with six or more years of experience who are no longer under contract), including five starters, and 11 restricted free agents. With the restricted free agents, the Panthers will need to make tender offers on or before March 4 if they plan to keep them around. The tender offers vary based the players’ experience in the league and which level of compensation the team chooses.
Here’s a review of Carolina’s unrestricted and restricted free agents heading into the 2010 off-season:
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS:
DE Julius Peppers: We’ve already written quite a bit about this scenario. Peppers’ agent Carl Carey said he hasn’t heard from the Panthers about a contract extension and believes the team has “moved on” and will allow Peppers to become an unrestricted free agent rather than use the franchise tag on him.
The Panthers say they haven’t decided what to do with Peppers. To franchise Peppers, the Panthers would need to pay him more than $20 million for the 2010 season. Don't expect it to happen.
WR Muhsin Muhammad: He turns 37 in May and while he had a decent season (53 rec., 581 yards, 1 TD) clearly the Panthers need to upgrade at the No. 2 wide receiver position to help reduce double coverage on Steve Smith. That doesn’t mean, however, the Panthers won’t bring Muhammad back to give them some depth at the position if the price is right. Stay tuned.
DE Tyler Brayton: It’s almost a foregone conclusion that Brayton will return. Brayton has resurrected his career in Carolina. The Panthers love his work ethic and he’s a high motor guy. Meanwhile, Brayton said last season he’d be “heartbroken” if the Panthers don’t re-sign him. Sounds like a good match.
OG Keydrick Vincent: Vincent has been a quality starter for the Panthers the past two seasons and as much as they’d hate to break up their starting five, the reality is they’ve been grooming Mackenzy Bernadeau and Duke Robinson as eventual replacements. The Panthers may try to re-sign Vincent, but they won’t break the bank trying to do it.
DT Hollis Thomas: He was a quality one-year fill-in who helped solidify a nose tackle position devastated by injuries. But with Hollis turning 36 last month, the Panthers have younger alternatives so it’s hard to imagine the big man returning for a 15th NFL season.
CB Dante Wesley: He’s not only a quality special teams player, but also contributed on defense as a hybrid linebacker/defensive back. Wesley, who doesn’t normally play on defense, liked his new role and defensive coordinator Ron Meeks liked what he brought to the team so this would seem like a perfect match as long as the price is right.
QB Josh McCown: With Matt Moore and Jake Delhomme likely to return and the team almost certainly ready to draft a younger quarterback, look for the journeyman McCown to be squeezed out. Too bad, because he had his chance last season, but broke his ankle and wound up on IR.
QB A.J. Feeley: Feeley was brought in last season to give the Panthers a veteran presence, but he doesn’t figure into the team’s long-term plans.
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS:
LB Thomas Davis (5th year): Any other year and Davis would be getting a multi-million dollar contract. But because 2010 will be an uncapped season Davis is a RFA since he has five years of experience, rather than the six required to be a UFA. Physically, Davis should be fine after tearing ligaments in his knee last year, so expect the Panthers to sign him to a tender. The big question will be which one. Because Davis was a first-round draft pick the Panthers may be able to get away with using the low tender on him (assuring a first-round pick as compensation should they lose him). For Davis, that would be about $2.52 million, which is 110 percent of his 2009 base salary last year plus a $100,000 workout bonus. The highest tender Davis would get is $3.268 million, which would bring first- and third-round compensation in return. He’s worth that money.
OT Rob Petitti (5th year): I can’t imagine the Panthers putting a high priority on re-signing Petitti, who didn’t play at all last season after joining the team when Jordan Gross got hurt. With Gross and Jeff Otah back and Geoff Schwartz proving he can be a valuable backup, tendering Petitti doesn’t make much sense. The team also has Garry Williams as a younger option.
CB Richard Marshall (4th year): Marshall, a four-year pro, is another guy who’s getting burned by the change in rules. He would have cashed in with a nice, big fat contract after a solid first season as a regular starter. Look for him to get a first-round tender of $2.521 million or a first- and third-round tender of $3.168 million if the team doesn’t work out a long-term deal beforehand.
TE Jeff King (4th year): For the second straight season, King is a restricted free agent. It’s almost a certainty he’ll get tendered and return. He can catch and block. The Panthers love that versatility given how much they run the football. A second-round tender would probably do fine.
LB James Anderson (4th year): He actually made a case for his return by playing well the last month of the season in place of the injured Thomas Davis and Landon Johnson. Of course, Carolina’s defense is suited for the weakside linebacker, so Anderson was put in a position to make plays. He’s worth bringing back at the original draft pick tender amount since it’s unlikely another team would give up a third-round pick as compensation.
QB Matt Moore (3rd year): It will be interesting to see if the Panthers try to sign him to a long-term deal or use a tender on him. Carolina’s options with Moore would be using a second-round tender ($1.684 million), a first-round tender ($2.396 million) or a first- and third-round tender ($3.043 million). They won’t give him the low tender because Moore wasn’t drafted and that would bring no compensation if wound up signing an offer sheet with another team.
DT Louis Leonard (3rd year): Carolina traded a sixth-round pick in 2010 to get Leonard and they liked how he performed before a broken ankle in Week 2 forced him to go on injured reserve. But in an effort to try and get younger, the Panthers will almost certainly keep him around.
DT Tank Tyler (3rd year): The Panthers traded a fifth-round pick in 2010 to acquire Tyler, so he’s in the same boat as Leonard. He’s part of a youth movement at defensive tackle. Damione Lewis will be 32 next season and Maake Kemoeatu, coming off a torn Achilles, will be 30. With Leonard, Tyler and last year’s third-round draft pick Corvey Irvin set to return, the Panthers should feel good about their defensive tackle spot heading into next season.
S Quinton Teal (3rd year): Teal has proven to be a solid special teams player over the past three seasons and will likely receive a tender offer.
K Rhys Lloyd (3rd year): He does one job and he does it well. Expect the Panthers to tender Lloyd and keep him around.
CB C.J. Wilson (3rd year): He appeared to have the inside track last season as the nickel position but got beat out by rookie Captain Munnerlyn. Still, the team may look to keep him around for another season.
OVERVIEW OF RESTRICTED FREE AGENCY:
Editor's Note: Here are the restricted free agent (RFA) tenders for the 2010 season, according to the NFLPA.
As always, the tender is the number listed below or 110 percent of the player's salary from the previous season, whichever is greater. Tender offers must be submitted to the league on or before March 4 otherwise the player becomes a free agent. There are three different tender levels, based on whether a player has three, four or five years of NFL experience. If the player signs an offer sheet with another team, the original team will have one week to match that offer. If they don't, they will receive draft pick compensation from the other team based on their tender offer. The deadline for signing RFAs to an offer sheet is April 15.
TENDERS FOR RFAs WITH 3 YEARS EXPERIENCE:
Original draft pick compensation (based on what round the player was selected): $1,101,000
Second-round tender: $1,684,000
First-round tender: $2,396,000
First- and third-round tender: $3,043,000
TENDERS FOR RFAs WITH 4 YEARS EXPERIENCE:
Original draft pick compensation (based on what round the player was selected): $1,176,000
Second-round tender: $1,759,000
First-round tender: $2,521,000
First- and third-round tender: $3,168,000
TENDERS FOR RFAs WITH 5 YEARS EXPERIENCE:
Original draft pick compensation (based on what round the player was selected): $1,226,000
Second-round tender: $1,849,000
First-round tender: $2,621,000
First- and third-round tender: $3,268,000
NOTE: For the Panthers, LB Thomas Davis and OT Rob Petitti are the only RFA with five years of NFL experience... CB Richard Marshall, TE Jeff King and LB James Anderson would be subject to the numbers under RFAs with four years of NFL experience... And, QB Matt Moore, DT Louis Leonard, DT Tank Tyler, S Quinton Teal, PK Rhys Lloyd and CB C.J. Wilson would be subject to the numbers under players with three years of NFL experience.